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Iraq Finds Its Arab Neighbors Are Reluctant to Offer Embrace

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By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008

When Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal greeted his Iraqi counterpart with a bear hug at a Persian Gulf conference last month, Bush administration officials watching from the sidelines were all smiles. After years of trying to bring their client state and the Arab giant together, it looked like things were finally starting to click.

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But despite U.S. entreaties, there has been no second date. Riyadh -- along with every other Sunni Arab state -- still declines to send an ambassador to Baghdad or to forgive billions of dollars of Hussein-era debt.

To frustrated U.S. matchmakers, it is blindingly obvious that Iraq needs the Arabs and the Arabs need Iraq, as a stable economic and political partner and a regional bulwark against Iran. Iraq may be a Shiite-majority country with a Shiite-dominated government -- like Iran -- they say, but it is Arab, not Persian.

President Bush plans to press for closer ties again today at a Riyadh meeting with Saudi King Abdullah.

Administration officials say that whatever doubts Iraq's fellow Arabs have about its loyalties should have been laid to rest this spring, when Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, launched military offensives against Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Basra and Baghdad. Last week, the officials note, Maliki's government voiced its first major public expression of concern over Iran's arming of Shiite militias and sent a delegation to Tehran to discuss it.

But Arab governments say they are far from persuaded that Iraq has turned a corner on its internal security, reconciliation among its ethnic, religious and political factions, or its relationship with Persia, as they often refer to Iran.

Beneath differing U.S. and Arab assessments of Iraq's progress are more fundamental divides that neither mentions in polite company. The administration is convinced that the Arabs have a deep-seated, psychological resistance to embracing a Shiite-ruled Iraq, no matter how even-handed its government. What they fail to understand, according to the U.S. view, is that their absence from Baghdad leaves the field open for Iranian influence.

For their part, some Arab officials describe lingering resentment over what they considered Washington's cavalier disregard of their warnings that the U.S. invasion would destabilize Iraq and the region, and its subsequent failure to safeguard the interests of Iraq's minority Sunnis in the U.S.-orchestrated reconstruction of the Iraqi political balance. And they see no reason why they should rush to accommodate the wishes of a lame duck administration that only recently adopted what they consider an effective Iraq policy.

"They will wait for the American election," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari predicted in a recent interview.

Those Arab states who once had representation in Iraq either scaled back or closed their embassies by the end of 2005 -- after Jordan's embassy was bombed, Egypt's ambassador was killed, and Algerian and United Arab Emirates diplomats were kidnapped. Some said security is their only hesitation.

But U.S. and Iraqi officials dismissed Arab security concerns as a smokescreen. "If I believed the issue were purely one of security, it would be one thing," a senior Bush administration official said. The Iraqi government has offered the Arabs space inside the fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. embassy and much of the Iraqi government is located.

The real basis for Arab reluctance, the U.S. official said, "is political. It's a choice, an acknowledgement that there is a new Iraq, of recognizing that its political structures, its constitution, its government, is in fact legitimate."


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